Lots goes into SEO strategy around canonical vs 301 redirects. If you are a regular blog writer, knowing when to use canonical vs 301 redirect is very helpful. First, it will allow you to clean up mistakes easily and effectively. Second, if you’re a regular blogger, you know the challenge of writing about the same topic. In an effort to avoid cannibalizing your own words, it’s important to know which of your articles matter more than another.
Let’s start with some definitions:
Canonical tags are tags within your articles that tell Google that this content is the “main” or “primary” selection over any others on your website on the same topic/keyword. If you have duplicate content on your site, a canonical tag is very useful. Whether you have published more than one article about the same topic, or you have attempted to optimize for a keyword/phrase on multiple articles, canonical tags help Google understand your wish for which article to index over the others.
This challenge often comes up with clients who have become stronger writers over time and want to publish something new on a familiar topic. By adding a canonical tag, you effectively tell Google which of your articles you prefer for both indexation and hopefully performance on Google.
It’s not a guarantee that Google will always select what you canonicalize, but it is one of the only ways if you have duplicate content to say: pick this piece over the others.
A 301 redirect is a permanent change made to a URL telling Google that the URL has moved from one location to another.
301 redirects are needed when:
- there was a publishing error (you saved a default or incorrect URL and want to fix it)
- you reverse optimized an article (this is SEO optimizing after writing and publishing) and need to change the URL to reflect your edits
- you added more keywords to an article and want them reflected in the URL
- you want to trim your URL so it’s shorter
The most important thing to know about a 301 redirect is that it eliminates the need to find your “old links” so you don’t lose clicks or traffic to your site. By adding a 301 redirect, your old URL now points to your new one. Then, everywhere your old URL lives, if someone clicks it, they get the new URL. It’s very efficient for fixing problems and ensuring your updated content still directs traffic to the right place.
So in the debate about canonical vs 301 redirects, they are used in very different ways. They are also tools to use intelligently as your website grows.
How to use canonical tags:
There are coding ways to add canonical tags and then there are tools.
Before you begin, you can check your canonical tags by either viewing your code on each individual page or using a tool like the Moz toolbar (this is free, but it only works in Chrome at the time of writing this post).
To view the source code follow these steps:
- Open the page you want to review
- Right click on the page to see “view source”
- Once the code is open, look for the phrase: link rel=”canonical”
It should look like this:
Once you have located the canonical tag, ask yourself if this is the best canonical tag for the content you have published.
Setting the canonical tag
It you don’t see a canonical tag, or the tag has been applied to the wrong article, you can use a tool like Yoast to fix it. I’m not paid by Yoast, but in my years as an SEO consultant, Yoast is one of the easiest and least expensive tools on the market that does both canonical tags and 301 redirects. The thing is, neither are available in the free version. You have to invest the $99 or whatever the current price is to use the tool.
Once you have Yoast’s premium product, choosing the canonical tag is easy. At the bottom of your Yoast block is an “advanced” option. Click that and it will open a box that looks like this:
Type into the box your selected canonical URL and then save. You’re all set.
What to do when you have a canonical vs 301 redirect decision to make
If you have duplicate content that is getting traffic you don’t want to lose, the question you have to wrestle with is what is more valuable: consolidating the traffic to one main URL or allowing all of the content to live online?
Consolidating the duplicate content to one main URL means doing a 301 redirects on all of the non-appointed pieces and adding a canonical tag to the one you decide to keep. This will help to clear up any confusion in search.
If you are concerned about losing any of the SEO traffic by redirecting, because the articles each rank for various, non-overlapping keywords, it make be wiser to keep the articles uniquely online until such time as they begin to show more keywords that are alike. You can still choose to add a canonical tag to the article you anticipate performing the best. That can help shift Google’s understanding of your article and move it in a specific direction, but it’s not a guarantee.
In this case, I would flag the articles and watch to see how the keywords shift over time. If you’re working on high intent keywords, this may happen quickly. Be sure to set your reminders to watch the articles so you don’t miss any fluctuations in the wrong direction.
In short, choosing to issue canonical vs 301 redirects is a case-by-case decision. Your SEO strategist should help you understand which URLs are more critical to your business and help you make strategic decisions about duplicate content and forging ahead with canonical or 301 redirects.
If you are struggling with this or other SEO challenges, please reach out. I’m happy to do a complimentary SEO audit and share the results with you. From there, we can see how I can help point your website in the right direction.